Paper Said On:
Brad Brown’s The Look Stains
By Lytle Shaw
On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.
—Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho.
The layers of blue, tan, egg yolk, and black paper (here taped, there stained and scrawled upon) or the elegant constellations of thin black lines on dirty cream paper backgrounds—such elements in Brad Brown’s The Look Stains (1987- ) might seem at first to say “on”—onwards—to a language of abstraction from Schwitters to Motherwell. Brown’s provocation, that is, might seem that of evoking and continuing the world of modernist mark-making at a moment when we have been taught, in increasingly knee-jerk fashion, to award “contemporaneity” to photographs mounted on aluminum, to high budget, film-quality videos, and, if one must use a hand, to squiggly “obsessive” line drawings. As the category of the contemporary becomes more and more received, such provocations become increasingly attractive. But Brown’s project is ultimately much stranger than that.
If one studies the Beckett-like trajectory of The Look Stains over time, one sees that they are not so much saying “on” to (or rallying around a mission of any kind) as being “said on.” More, the seeming know-how of their maker (he does make nice lines) is much more compellingly a nohow, and a nohow on—a refusal of controlled compositional means and progressive ends. The Look Stains are being “said on” because the would-be singular enunciative force, the intentional voice, of each drawing is continually qualified, and in fact disrupted, by its contact with other drawings in the series: having modified one, their keeper tucks it back into the stack, wet, tacky, sticky with tape. Here it marks, strains, drags, erodes its neighbors. Others lie around on tables, open to events in the studio, to accumulations, accidents, ongoingness as elevated napkins. Of course some try to escape. They begin to look “resolved,” hoping thereby to end their ordeal by finding their way to a relatively stable geological layer in the archive among the hardened drawings of a decade ago. But such pretty boy sycophants invariably bring forth the sadism—not so much of their warden—as of “the system” in which he operates: they are immediately drawn and quartered. Brown literally rips them into four pieces. Like worms they depart plural back into the layers of their sediment—licking wounds, leaving more trails. Smudging yet more neighbors, gradually.
“Unchanged?” Beckett wonders in Worstward Ho, before again collapsing any stability he might seem to have gained: “Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.” Beckett’s permutations here are not just variations, but implosions. Far less familiar than he was in the 1950s (as existentialist, dramatist, and prose writer) the Beckett of Worstward Ho seems to light the pathless, entropic way for The Look Stains. It makes sense, then, that Brown would also be drawn (as he has been) to the accumulative, permutational work of poets like Ted Berrigan and Ron Silliman. What is of interest here is not the descriptive act per se (or, for Brown, not the nice moment when the drawing or collage jells), but its mutated re-arrangement across the course of longer works. And so with The Look Stains: the same principles of sedimentation and then disruption that organize individual sheets also organize each display of the series. As a curator of his own work, Brown “draws” with his various sheets as he arranges them into the temporary orders that comprise most installations of the work—these only become fixed if they are sold. Otherwise, they return to the flux of the archive. Perhaps this flux was emphasized especially when Brown was still adding new works to the project. And yet, even though the project was “capped” (in the same year as the Fresh Kills landfill) in 2001, Brown continues consciously to manipulate and unconsciously to denude his original elements, his saying in turn being “said on” in an infinite recursive loop. Organic life at the bottom of The Look Stains piles thus continues as it did.